Why Conservation is Cool (Again)

New generation of 'never-till' farmers are building organic matter – and profits

No-till was just coming on when I started writing for farm magazines a couple decades back. The guys adopting it tended to be open-minded and willing to take a few risks for the good of the soil and their pocketbook. They're still out there, and now they're taking no-till to the extreme.

That's one of the first impressions I got on the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) annual "Conservation in Action" farm tour last week in Virginia. The tour took place near Jamestown, site of the first colonial settlers. What's happening here is a far cry from the crude methods of the colonials – farm land until it 'wore out,' then move on to the next patch and chop down the trees.

Here, a growing trend toward 'never-till,' or continuous no-till, is taking hold thanks to the persistence of guys like long-time Virginia Tech Extension agronomist Paul Davis. It's a system that includes year-round rotation, water and soil management and minimum soil disturbance – only at planting. Over 500,000 Virginia acres are now in continuous no-till.

"We don't have God-given organic matter here like they do back in the Midwest," says Davis, whose truck has a NVRTILL license plate. "Here we have to grow our own."

David Hula, Charles City, VA (photo left), now farms some of those fields first cultivated by the colonists in 1607. Hula admits he never thought he could make a corn crop with Virginia's sandy "Pamunkey" soil and dodgy moisture. But he's won multiple NCGA corn yield contests by spoon-feeding nitrogen three or four times a year with starter and sidedress applications. Hula does a lot of little things to create what he calls a 'high yield environment': soil tests, tissue analysis, foliar applications, and micronutrients where needed. As a result, his organic matter has gone from 1.5 to around 3%.

"Our data from field maps gives us a great knowledge of what the soils needs to grow a crop," he says. "We've pulled good yields off some fields with only 1 lb. N per bushel yield."

Hula and his neighboring never-tillers are also under pressure to reduce nutrient loss to the Chesapeake Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency is setting up something called TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), a formula by which industries like agriculture or municipalities will have limits on how much stray nutrient or sediment can be allowed into the bay.

Dick Wittman, the Idaho farmer, financial consultant and contributing editor at Farm Futures, told me earlier this year that about half of our native soil organic matter has vanished in the past 200 years, due to water, wind and soil tillage erosion. "You can't erode your soils or you'll run yourself out of business," he said.

Fortunately, there are a lot of farmers out there now who are managing soils in a way that will give good yields and keep soil in place. That's the only way we'll be able to feed a growing planet now - and hundreds of years from now.

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